2 Dogs Died from Eating Sago Palm Seeds: Here's How to Keep Your Own Pup Safe
What was supposed to be a fun family trip to South Carolina turned into the Evans' worst nightmare.
The sad story started with a trip from Illinois to a new vacation home in sunny South Carolina, where Stephanie and Tony Evans' dogs Maisy and Murphy enjoyed some time outdoors in the yard. The two dogs both ate what looked like crab apples, Stephanie told PEOPLE. Thirty minutes later, both of the pups were vomiting uncontrollably.
Stephanie made a quick call to a local veterinary practice, Coastal Vet Critical Care, where they confirmed that the suspected crab apples were actually seeds from sago palms.
"I described the seed, and they said to get them in as soon as we could as they thought it was the toxic sago palm seed," she told PEOPLE.
Unfortunately, every part of this ornamental plant contains cycasin, which is a toxic agent that can cause liver failure in dogs (and people and other animals!) in large enough doses.
Veterinary treatment started less than two hours after the dogs ate the seeds, but sadly, it wasn't enough to save the family's dogs. Maisy unfortunately passed away that same day. Murphy seemed to recover, but passed away from liver failure a few days later back in Illinois.
Now, the family is set on informing other pet parents so the same thing doesn't happen to any more precious pups.
How to Keep Your Dogs Safe from Toxic Sago Palm Plants
When it comes to keeping your pets safe from this deadly tropical plant, try not to let your pet come into contact with them in the first place by understanding what they look like and where they grow. While native to Japan, sago palms are a popular houseplant found worldwide. They can also grow in the wild or in gardens through USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 9-11, and are common in warm weather climates like Texas, Louisiana, Florida, California, and the Carolinas.
Make sure you know how to identify a sago palm.
Whether you live in a place where sago palms grow naturally or are found in landscaping or gardens, it's a good idea to preemptively identify vegetation on your favorite hiking paths, at your favorite dog parks, and around the neighborhood where you walk your dog. That way, if your dog ever eats something harmful off the ground—sago palm or not—you'll be able to share those details with your veterinarian.
If you're unsure how to tell if a plant is in fact a sago palm, Better Homes and Gardens has some helpful tips. Sago palm seeds in particular, like the ones poor Murphy and Maisy got into, are often confused for crabapples, as the Evans' thought. These are tropical plants, so if you don't live in a warm climate, chances are you won't run across one out in the wild. But since sago palms are also popular houseplants, it's a good idea to ask family, friends, neighbors, or anyone else you and your pet are visiting, to put their plant in a safe place your dog cannot access or find an alternate meeting spot that's safer for your pet.
Don't buy or plant sago palms in your homes or yards.
Any plant in the Cycad, Zamia, or Macrozamia family is potentially toxic to dogs, if ingested. That goes for cats too. If you want a palm, stick to true palms and other dog-safe plants when you're shopping at the garden center.
"If you have a pet or are thinking of getting a pet, talk to your veterinarian about plants to avoid," says Renee Schmid, DVM, DABVT, DABT, a veterinarian toxicologist who works with Pet Poison Helpline.
Can You Treat Dog Sago Palm Poisoning?
Schmid says that while veterinarians can treat poisoning from sago palms, it's not a guarantee and time is crucial.
If a dog has eaten any part of the sago palm and is showing signs of poisoning, which could first include vomiting, diarrhea (with or without blood), and lethargy, you need to head to the veterinary hospital immediately. Liver failure, organ damage, and neurological signs like wobbliness and seizures can follow.
"This has a very narrow margin of safety in dogs," Schmid says, which means you shouldn't wait to see what happens after your dog eats sago palm, and you shouldn't assume everything is OK if the dog vomits up what looks like intact seeds. For the Evans family, the ill effects of the toxin only took two hours until it was too late to save their dogs.
If you suspect that your pet may have eaten sago palm seeds or nuts, a visit to the nearest vet clinic is absolutely necessary. Aggressive treatment from your vet could first include medicine to induce vomiting or pumping the stomach for undigested sago palm, according to VCA Hospitals. If the plant parts have been digested, they could already be damaging the liver, so intravenous fluids and a blood or plasma transfusion may come next, to help your dog's liver and other organs.
How well your dog does will depend on a lot of factors: how quickly treatment begins, how much was eaten compared to your dog's size, and your dog's age and health.
Veterinary hospitals cannot specifically test for sago palm poisoning, although they can check your dog's liver function after the toxin has started to take effect. Your veterinarian will depend on you to tell them as much as you can about what the dog ate, how much, and how long ago.
Prevention is Key to Keeping Pets Safe From Toxic Sago Palms
The bottom line? Just steer clear of these plants if you have a furry family member in your home. While a popular houseplant and common ornamental shrub in yards throughout the Southern U.S., keeping these toxic tropical plants within reach of your animals is not worth the risk.
If you suspect your dog has eaten sago palm or is exhibiting signs of a possible poisoning, call your veterinarian right away. Pet Poison Helpline received more than 350 cases of sago palm poisoning April 2020 to April 2021, according to Schmid. While a visit to the veterinarian didn't save Maisy and Murphy's lives, aggressive treatment started early could save your dog's life if your pet is ever exposed.